Don’t be afraid of the dark side!

So, recently I’ve jumped genres. Not just a little skip-type jump, but a long-jump type jump. Over a hurdle, across a body of water, onto a moving target. For the last __ years, I’ve written what I most enjoyed reading: romantic comedy, women’s fiction with a humorous tone, sometimes spy thriller stuff, but nothing angsty, nothing uber dramatic, rarely anything traumatic.

And then two months ago, BAM!!!! I got smacked upside the head with a plot that wouldn’t leave me alone. It wasn’t in a genre I’d ever really read, it was dark, it was twisty, it was at times even gross. I can’t stop working on it.

With this new project came a new need: first, information, about psychotic behaviors, mental conditions, criminal tendencies, police procedure. A secondary need, no less important, has been the knowledge that someone else out there has these twisty, dark, creepy, gross thoughts and they’re allowed – no, encouraged – to put them on paper; no one comes by with a one-way ticket to the “Are you a future ax murderer?” all-inclusive hotel.

I’ve found the answer to both my new needs in similar places: online communities. RWA’s Kiss of Death chapter is home to lots and lots of women who are having similar disturbing thoughts, so that was a great place to start. But I’ve also found non-membership-based resources, such as the CrimeWriter  Yahoo group. These ladies and gentlemen are there to do nothing but address “How would I…” “What if…” “Is this possible…” questions. Many have law enforcement backgrounds. One or two seem to be psychology-minded (is that redundant?). So far I’ve learned just by reading the answers to other’s questions. I know I have a lot of catching up to do, coming late to the suspense/thriller party, but this is the most fun I’ve had learning in a LONG time!

The lesson for me? Don’t hide from the dark side. Embrace it. Pick at it. Scrape off the scabs. See what’s around that next dark corner. As my plotting partner said, “This is the best thing I’ve read of yours, ever!” Maybe going where we think we shouldn’t go is the best thing we can do for our writing. Especially when we go there with such good company!

My second brain

Twice a month I have dinner (well, usually breakfast, since we meet at Perkins) with a friend of mine, also a writer.  Barb is one of the most prolific writers I know. She’s got a 7 book series going, plus three or four stand alone titles, and she never ever seems to run out of ideas. Her plots are also some of the most complex – but honest and well-written – I’ve ever come across. I don’t know how she comes up with these mental mazes; they floor me every time she shares one. But as she explains it, she has an idea, it’s buried in a nasty mess of yarn, and like a cat, her mind plays with it and plays with it until it’s all unwoven and she can see the warm fuzzy sweater hidden inside.

Lucky me, I’ve now been invited to be catlike and play in the yarn, too. She’ll throw out a “this is what (she/he/character) told me. I love it but don’t get it. Help me figure out what he/she means!” and then we sit and ponder possible meanings to a scene that came fully formed to her. These scenes are amazing little nuggets of writer gold, and all! she has to do is figure out what comes before, what comes after, and who the heck the characters who have thrust themselves into the open are. Nothing major.

So, every other Monday night we sit together over pancakes and pie and ‘what if’ and ‘could this be it?’ and ‘that won’t work because’ for three or more hours. [Our server has become so familiar with us he knows to come for our orders with a pot of coffee, disappear til food is ready, take our plates once they’re empty, and return an hour later to see if we’re ready for pie. He’s well-trained.]

While I might be considered a second brain in that I contribute plot points and tidbits to Barb’s stories, Barb is very tangibly ‘co-writing’ Gemma with me. She’s agreed to take on the role of ‘Gram’ and in that character’s voice is surprising and delighting me with diary entries that I then get to write against. It’s a blast, and it’s inspiring and it’s intriguing because she comes up with things I would never come up with, but that are awesome for the story. And she’s got the voice DOWN. This woman is exactly what she is supposed to be: a feisty, independent, charming woman who has lived her life her own way and isn’t settling for anything less than what she wants and deserves.

The cool thing about this whole sharing process is that we both get to see something from another perspective, something we would not see otherwise. I don’t write drama and Barb doesn’t write humor, so we’re both out of our natural comfort zones, and that’s quite possibly why it works. We are seeing things with clear, open eyes, untainted by presumptions or what we already known in our own heads or books we’ve read in our own genres. This is a huge benefit, to both of us, I believe. It’s literally like having a second brain without the expensive upkeep and maintenance.

Someday I may ask my second brain to do a guest blog post and share how she comes up with her crazy, twisted, awesome plots. Or how she manages to juggle a full-time pressure-filled office job and still produce the pages she does. She’s got lots to share.

But not yet… for now, I want more Gram stories!

I’m In Love and Oh-So-Happy

I’ve had Gemma floating around in my head for about two years. The first scene has always been there. I love the first scene. It’s fun and sad and definitely has tension. But I’ve been stuck: what comes after the first scene? I couldn’t get a firm handle on that. Hell, I couldn’t even get a gelatinous wiggle. The protagonist presented herself fully formed, which is always helpful. And I knew it was about living up to potential, and I knew it was about conquering fear, and of course I knew, since it’s me, the emotional content has to be wrapped in lightness rather than darkness. So that’s a lot of knowing. There’s clearly a lot of opportunity, a lot of ways to take a story like this. But none of them worked. This story turned up its nose at every possible vision I offered. 
     And that resulted in a very solid inability to write. 
     Then one night over pancakes (really, breakfast foods are miraculous on so many levels) with a friend, the solution came to me. [Side note to Natalie, maybe that’s what was ‘magic’: pancakes!]
     Now I’m in the throes of new love: researching 1940 Los Angeles and travel in the ‘50s, Woodstock, real estate in Santa Barbara in 1970; making up a scandalous past that is worthy of my favorite writerly quote (“Laughs, sex scenes, detailed dinner menus, clever wordplay and enough old-fashioned narrative to blacken one’s fingers through vigorous page turning…”); and figuring out how to write two distinct but equally fantastic women – one comfortable in her skin from the time she could crawl, the other rediscovering the self that would have and should have been if not for some misdirection caused by others’ actions. This is pure joy, this sort of writing, the discovery, the fun, the “Oh my god where did that come from I love it!” All writing should be like this. I know it’s not going to be, I know that at some point I’ll be in that part where I feel like my writer brain is immersed in concrete and it’s hardening fast, but for now I’m holding onto the energy that is fueled by writing joy and I’m flying through the possibilities at the speed of light.
     Damn, but I love new love.

How can something so short be so difficult?

All my life I’ve written long form fiction. I wrote a few plays as a kid, and then novels as I entered my teens, and that trend has continued into chronological, if not emotional, adulthood. The concept of how to write short stories has always been somewhat foreign to me. I took a short story course once in college and the professor said “Your stories read like Bruce Willis movies. Chill out.”

 

It’s not like I haven’t wanted to write short stories; I’ve had some great ideas that fit better into the short arena than as novels or even novellas. But my brain can’t wrap itself around the technical process… As far as I can tell, it requires a tremendous amount of skill to convey character, setting, and plot in just a few thousand words. Apparently I’m not that talented.

 

Most of the time, my ineptitude in short form isn’t a problem, as I have plenty to write about in long form to keep my brain busy. But right now, the thing that is demanding to be produced is a short story. And when I say “demanding” I mean, my brain won’t ponder my current novel, or anything else. Just this story.

 

So shut up and write it, right?

 

My writer muscle is locked in a concrete padded cell. I’m overwhelmed and scared and convinced this is an impossible task. But I’ve got my pencil out and I’m using the eraser end to chip away at the concrete.

 

My very first question: How do I get the emotional back story in when I haven‘t got 85000 words to scatter it through? And my second: How do I make the reader understand the complicated, morally-questionable premise that’s on the table, and the resulting decision, when I don’t get to spend at least a few pages laying the groundwork? I pretty much need to jump in to the emotional action here, but somehow find a way to drag the reader up to speed – if not empathetic, at least sympathetic – right out of the gate.

 

I can’t figure out how to do that.

 

So, anyone have any tips for a new short story writer dipping a toe into the big pond?

It’s all about me! (or you? or them?)

Yesterday at our monthly Saturday Writers meeting we got into a really interesting conversation about point of view, as in “writer’s point of view.” Jean (you know her; she was one of our bloggers until recently when life got in the way – Hi Jean!”) decided she’s going to write in a new point of view, which is what prompted the discussion. And in the process, we learned a couple of things, including the fact that I can’t say the word “Omniscient.” (You try it. Not that easy!) There are three primary Points of View (and a few twists on each of them, as well):

 

First Person – “I” point of view. Seen strictly from inside the protagonist’s head.

Third Person – “He/she” point of view. Seen from one or more characters, one at a time, and experience only what that character experiences.

Omniscient or Narrative– A narrator, who can be external or a character in the story, presents the tale to the reader. They can show us anyone’s thoughts or actions. It’s the most difficult POV to master.

 

Personally, as a reader and a writer, I’m a big fan of third person omniscient. I like being able to tell my story through the eyes of a number of characters (with appropriate scene changes and indicators to keep the reader following along nicely). I think this form has a number of benefits; it gives the narrator (me!) reliability because it’s clear I know everything. It lets the writer layer experiences and views, creating a rich landscape. And it covers more ground, because the writer doesn’t have to wait til the one-and-only viewpoint character comes across something to share the information. And make the POV universal omniscient instead of third-person – and things become tricky: I the writer can share with the reader things my characters don’t know.

 

There’s been a POV trend for the last decade of so – first person narrative. The story is told exclusively through the protagonist’s eyes. What he/she doesn’t see, neither does the reader see. What he/she doesn’t know, neither does the reader know. In some ways it’s more person… we’re living with and through the character, so we’re as closely “along for the ride” as we can be. But it’s also very limiting, in my opinion. It prevents a story from having all the layers it might have with the addition of other characters viewpoints. Often I won’t purchase a book that’s written in first POV because for me they tend to drag a bit. But I’m trying to broaden my horizons, and I just finished Grave Sight by Charlaine Harris, and I admit, I liked it. I’m also reading Lois Greiman’s Unzipped, another 1st person POV, and I’m enjoying it, too. So maybe as with all things, it’s the writer’s ability to handle the technique well.

 

So, I’m going to give in and test it for myself. Sometime this week I plan to rewrite Gemma’s opening scene in first person, and see if it improves, or doesn’t change at all, the strength of the piece. It should be an easy scene to experiment on, since it’s relatively short, somewhat active, and full of emotion.

 

I’ll let you know what I come up with.

 

In the meantime, what POV do you find yourself most easily immersed in? 1st person? 3rd? Omniscient?

 

 

 

The love is gone, but not the respect

There is an author whose works I used to love, that was one of the first to really get me excited and willing to read ‘romance’ novels. Anyone who knows me knows who she is. If you don’t know me, you don’t care who she is. Or if you do, you care for the wrong reasons and I’m not going to dis her by naming her.

 

I’ve realized lately that I buy her books with no intention of reading them. They’re just not that great anymore. Her batting average for me has dropped to about 30%… one of three books she’s published in the last four years was readable. Every time I am full of hope… and nearly every time I can’t muster up the interest to read past the first few chapters.

 

Why do I keep buying her books? For a few reasons: Her first books were amazing, and showed me a whole new type of writing (that I have adopted and twisted to make my own) and I owe her loyalty for that; she has given hours upon hours upon hours to wanna be writers and fans and for that, I owe her loyalty; and three, I just plain like her as a person (well, as much as I can see through the oh-so-personal world of technology and the occasional writing seminar) and for that, I owe her loyalty. So if I can spend $8.99 a year to keep her in business, I’m willing to do it.

 

Some of the things I’ve learned from her I won’t share because they’d instantly identify her to any writer out there, but some are definitely worth sharing:

 

1.      Humor doesn’t have to be of the Three Stooges variety.

2.      But it can be.

3.      Relationships-all kinds, not just romantic ones-are as important to a story as setting.

4.      Dialogue ROCKS.

5.      Not all heroes have to be Alpha to be sexy as hell.

6.      Snark is good.

7.      People can experience difficult challenges without 250 pages of hand-wringing, sobbing, and misery.

8.      Drama does not necessarily equal trauma.

9.      Angst is not a vital ingredient to a good story.

10.  Strong women can be very flawed. In fact, the more flawed they are, sometimes the stronger and more interesting they are.

 

For these lessons, and more, I will continue to buy every book that appears with her name on it. And if I’m lucky, every once in a while I’ll fall in love with one of her stories, like I did ten years ago when I first made her acquaintance. If I’m not lucky, that’s okay. Because somewhere, another writer is reading her for the first time, and loving that voice, and realizing that not all books are the same. And maybe she’s deciding that she wants to write like that, and she’s looking around, and she finds support and encouragement from others like her.

 

And that’s a great reason to buy a book.

 

Showing Your Private Parts

There’s glitter on my laptop keys. Hmm. Wonder how that happened.

I’m knee-deep in the fleshing out of my latest humorous women’s fiction piece, tentatively entitled “Gemma.” I’m really digging where the story is going. The book idea came from a great opening scene that I’ve had forever, it just took a couple of years for the scene to tell me what it wanted to be when it grew into a novel. I know what Gemma’s arc needs to be, and I have other characters talking in my head telling me how they plan to contribute to her growth in both supportive and not-so-supportive ways. (*Note to self: Next month’s blog post to be about the challenges of starting with characters rather than story.)

Interestingly (to me), the more I work on this idea, the more I find that parts of my actual, real, often boring and sometimes comical life are making their way into the story. Of course there are autobiographical elements in nearly any work of fiction, even if they’re minor, like a character’s tendency to use a certain expression. But this time I’m taking big bits of Sara and assigning them to Gemma.

Starting right in the title, in fact. Gemma = Gretchen Elizabeth Mary Mueller Arnold (although her name was actually Mary Miller Arnold Mueller). That’s my mother and my grandmother’s initials, conveniently arranged. There’s a reason for that: my mother hid from life, and my grandmother chased life, and Gemma is the story of a woman’s progress from meekness to boldness.

There are more tangible connections. My grandmother makes an appearance in the story, setting into motion the external conflict. There are “Sara” details: during the two years my mother and I were on our own, we pretty much lived on breakfast. Since that was one of the happier times of my life, breakfast is something I hold dear and turn to during times of stress, and I pay homage to my love of all things breakfast by collecting waffle irons. Gemma, I’ve decided, also collects waffle irons, and there will be a scene with her having breakfast with her mother as a small child. I also have an unfortunate tendency to have funny but somewhat ego-bruising public calamities – ask me how I broke my leg in 9 places, or just last week ended up sandwiched between the treads of my staircase and a 300 pound sofa – and I’m assigning that talent to Gemma, as well.

In many ways, Gemma may be my James Frey novel, although I think there’ll actually be more truth in mine than there was in his. (My root canals have involved lots and lots of pain meds.)

As all this became more concrete in my mind, I began to wonder: how comfortable are you as writers really putting yourself in your stories? Could you put an emotionally raw personal experience on paper for the world to see, if you knew they might discover it was based on fact? What are you personal boundaries?

Nano is about more than just words

Since many of my writing mates wrote about Nano, I’m going to get in on the action, too. But from a different perspective. I’m going to write about the unexpected things I got from Nano. Hint: it wasn’t 50,000 words. Not this year.

                The first thing I got was the knowledge that I have some great writing friends. They’re supportive and knowledgeable and ready to jump in with an answer to some unexpected research questions or a plotting problem or to offer up a heartfelt yet simple “You CAN do it!”

                The second thing I learned was that I can, when motivated, write very quickly. If I always wrote as much and as fast as I wrote during timed sprints, I could have a book done in weeks. Which would be great, if my plots were ever cohesive the first time around. And that leads us to discovered item #3:

                The plot of my current WIP was MIA. I had a good grasp of my character, a potential premise, but absolutely nothing happened to her. She had experiences. Lovely, uplifting, life-affirming experiences. All great things, but not the things required to make a book. At least not a book anyone but my grandmother (who is passed, unfortunately) would find gripping. Come to think of it, even she would tell me it was crap and to figure out how to make it a proper book.

                So, in my Nano experience, I wrote a lot of scenes (23,000 words worth!) and in the process realized more than anything I was getting to know my character rather than actually putting steps into place. I’m not the least bit unhappy about it. Now I know what Gemma’s story is, and now I know what needs to happen in the other 75,000 words I need to write (and then cut, cut, cut and add, add, add).  

                The point is, Nano may have been intended to get a book out in 30 days, but I think you can consider yourself a winner if your novel benefits from the experience, 50,000 words or not. Building writing relationships, learning about your own writing capabilities, and finding the core of your story are as important as getting those words on paper (or in my case, screen).

Writerly travels

Does your writerly brain stay ‘on’ when you travel?

Last month I was lucky enough to spend 5 days in San Francisco. Being a “native” Californian, of course I’d been to SF before, but it has been a while, so I took everything in with new eyes… and I noticed my writer’s brain was engaged. It’s a place that’s so rich in experience and history, it’s hard not to come away with ideas for places, characters, situations.

My hostess, a recently transplanted Iowan now residing in an apartment near Fisherman’s Wharf, thought it would be a kick to take a couple of the double-decker bus tours. The first one lead us all through the major areas: Union Square, Embarcadero, the Financial District, Chinatown, North and South Beach, and does a drive-by of Lombard Street. The potential stories found in that 45 minute bus ride alone were amazing: did you know any flat part of San Francisco is built on landfill, and much of the landfill is the corpses of ships that were abandoned during the gold rush? Did you know the history of the phrase “Sugar Daddy” can be traced directly to a statue in the middle of Union Square? Do you know which celebrities now call San Francisco their homes? Then we took the “Golden Gate tour” – and there I learned that Mark Twain said of San Francisco “The coldest winter I ever spent was the summer I spent here.” The incredible Presidio, which was the oldest US military base, is now being turned into private (rented – at $10,000 a month!) housing, and parts of it are being taken over by Hollywood to become studios for the guys and gals who brought us Star Wars. The Golden Gate Bridge has to be repainted pretty much continuously… when they finish one section, the others have all gone ragged looking. Many potential story ideas here.

But besides the great tours, I came back with some fantastic impressions of life in general in this new city. My hostess gets up each morning, walks to Peet’s (Starbucks is only for tourists!), grabs a coffee and hops on the trolley which she then takes to work. By getting on the trolley two blocks west of her apartment instead of the one a block south, she avoids the throngs of tourists who don’t know they have other options. On the ride to work, she passes the incredible Ferry Building where people shop for olive oil, bread, specialty mushrooms, chocolate, cooking utensils and then finish it all off with a glass of wine at the wine bar. Tons of story ideas there, too… And then once in her office, she has a glimpse of the whole hilly city, all its inhabitants, all its flavor. Here I have some color for my character’s life.

I took notes. I grabbed brochures and flyers and BART maps and napkins and took photos. I have a new folder marked “San Fran” and have included my scribbled ideas, memories, and questions on the cover while it protectively encases my memories so that I can dive in and bring up something wonderful sometime when I need inspiration.

So, what vacations have filled your head with writerly thoughts and ideas?

 

Are you comfortable being “original”?

Back in 2000 I got deep into a story about selling antiques online. The premise of the story was that a young antique dealer was selling something online, and it turned out to be something more valuable than she knew, and many people wrote asking her to end the auction early and sell it outright. One man emailed telling her what she had so she’s know. They developed a relationship via long-distance, using mostly email as their communication method.
 
I was advised the story would never sell – an online relationship was unbelievable and too ‘out there’ – yet now there are lots of stories with a premise that involves the online world. And werewolves, shape-shifters and vampire slayers, too.

The point is, never let someone else dissuade you because something is too out there, too unusual, not mainstream, whatever. Take a chance, be the first. If it’s a good idea, hundreds will follow. If it’s a great idea, break the rules and show everyone that it can be done, and how it can be done.

Have you ever had an idea that someone else shot down? Did you keep going in spite of it or did you, like me, let a great idea fall along the wayside out of fear?